The Israel Defense Forces continue to attract young men and women in the Diaspora who want to do something meaningful for Israel. Of the 120 outstanding soldiers from all units in the IDF, who are traditionally honored at the President’s Residence on Independence Day, 32 were born in 14 foreign countries, with six from Ethiopia and four each from Brazil, Ukraine and the US.
There is an increase in the number of young Israelis born with disabilities, which ordinarily would disqualify them from army service, but are accepted as volunteers due to a growing realization in the upper echelons of the IDF that what disabled people can do is more important than what they can’t do.
There were four male soldiers and one female soldier in this category among the 120 outstanding honorees, whose disabilities include autism, deafness, Asperger’s syndrome, and being wheelchair bound. All five are making a valuable contribution.
Of the 21 lone soldiers from among the honorees, there were eight males and 13 females. Some came from troubled socioeconomic backgrounds, despite which they had been able to realize their potential.
The event, hosted by President Reuven Rivlin and his wife, Nechama, is a tribute not only to the 120 outstanding soldiers, but to the IDF in general. Among those who attended were Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, members of the General Staff, former defense ministers Moshe Arens, Yitzhak Mordechai, Ehud Barak and Amir Peretz, former chief of staff Benny Gantz, as well as senior politicians, former commanders of IDF units, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and the families of the honorees.
In the spirit of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the state, at least one entertainer was older than the state itself.
Israel Gurion, 82, singing and dancing with members of the IDF entertainment troupe who were around 60 years his junior, proved that he still has his voice, his energy and his agility.
A huge cheer went up when the 120 soldiers, who had been put through their paces by Lt.- Col. Oded Nahari, who was heading the military aspect of the ceremony for the 18th consecutive year, marched up on stage and took their places.
Rivlin recalled that exactly a week earlier, he together with Eisenkot and the heads of the Israel Police, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and Mossad, had stood on a ramp at Auschwitz- Birkenau “at the edge of the worst abyss to which the Jewish people had been subjected” and heard the sounds of shofars, and the recital of Kaddish and other memorial prayers.
They had also stood and listened to popular singer Shlomo Artzi speak of his mother who had been a survivor of Auschwitz, and together with the huge crowd had joined him in singing: “Suddenly a man rises in the morning, feels as if he is a nation, and begins to walk...”
Rivlin said that in singing the song, there was a strong realization that Israel is not something to be taken for granted.
“We are a miracle without precedent,” he said.
Israel’s mission was not completed on the 5th of the Hebrew calendar month of Iyar, 5708 (May 14, 1948), he said. There was still much to be done: Jewish immigration, the ingathering of the exiles, the development of the land for all who dwell in it, freedom, justice, equality, full social and political rights for all citizens of Israel regardless of creed, ethnicity or gender; freedom of religion, conscience, speech, education and culture all of which were part of the vision of the prophets and the founders of the state, he said, and which are inscribed in the Declaration of Independence.
Rivlin, Netanyahu, Liberman and Eisenkot were asked by moderators Rotem Abuav and Aviv Alush to name what for them was the most meaningful moment in the state’s history.
They expected only one reply from each, but they got more.
For Rivlin, it was the victory in the War of Independence, Tu Bishvat 1949 when the Knesset was transferred from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the reunification of Jerusalem in June 1967.
NETANYAHU ALSO named the Six Day War, but added the Yom Kippur War of 1973, which ended in a victory for Israel’s unprepared army which though caught unawares, emerged the victor. For Liberman, it was also the Six Day War, which culminated with the reunification of Jerusalem and imbued Soviet Jews with the desire to learn about Zionism and to study Hebrew.
For Eisenkot, the exciting moment was and still is seeing new recruits arrive with their parents at the recruitment base as well as to watch them getting into the buses as members of the IDF.
There was consensus that Israel’s army has the best technology in the world.
In his own address, Eisenkot noted that thousands of recruits join the IDF each year and notwithstanding differences in backgrounds, work diligently and devotedly shoulder to shoulder in response to every challenge.
Despite the IDF’s many accomplishments, it must remain constantly on high alert in order to defend the state, he said.
Tens of thousands of soldiers have been deployed along the borders to deter enemy efforts from infiltrating, he added, noting that they do so in the spirit of a combat soldier, in a feeling of camaraderie, and mutual commitment to each other, loyalty to the state and a sense of mission.”
Eisenkot also pledged to bring home for burial in Israel the remains of Oren Shaul and Hadar Goldin, and to do all that was possible to secure the freedom of two Israeli civilians being held in Hamas captivity.
Speaking on behalf of the soldiers Dr. Shira Ben Barak Leibovich, who serves as a physician in the medical unit of the Armored Corps, said that none of the 120 outstanding soldiers was performing his or her duty for the sake of recognition and reward. “We do what we do as part of our everyday lives,” she said. “It is our mission to defend the state and we don’t forget those who are missing or who are prisoners.”